The Government must read the writing on the wall

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While the protestors at Galle Face continue with their protests preventing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from working from his office, there seems to be some degree of consultation among Opposition groups opening up slight hopes of a resolution of the deadlock in governance paralysis that the country is witnessing.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa unveiled his party’s proposals for Constitutional reform which included the abolition of the Executive Presidency while Parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe presented the Group of 40s proposal to revert to the 19th Amendment.

While Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to abolish the 20th Amendment and go back to the 19th Amendment, no firm proposals have been presented to Parliament by him as yet.  

There are reports, sketchy at this point of time, that the Opposition parties are now talking to each other and exploring options to resolve the Constitutional and governance impasse. This is indeed a welcome move.

The Government for its part seems to be groping in the dark with no plan to ease the tribulations of the people. This was apparent in Parliament last week with the call by both Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the Government to present its economic road map to resolve the current crisis being met by a loud silence from the Government’s ranks.

It seems that the Government has put all its eggs in the IMF basket and is hoping for a bail out from the world body and is completely at sea with regard to what else has to be done.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week appointed a Cabinet leaving his senior Parliamentarians out. Addressing the new Cabinet he admitted that delaying going to the IMF and the decision to switch from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser were mistakes.

The implications of the Presidential confession are many. The delay in going to the IMF, particularly in the face of advice by a wide range of economic advisers and calls by Opposition law makers, has been fatal because it has driven the country to near bankruptcy and caused immeasurable misery to the people.

The decision with regard to fertiliser was equally short sighted and has led to a drop in the productivity of the agricultural sector including tea production which is a source of scarce foreign exchange.

The confessions made by the President are so grave and have such far reaching implications for the country that they would be sufficient reason for him to gracefully step down from office. Whether he acted on his own or on advice, constitutionally he is both head of State and head of Government and the buck must stop with him.

But unfortunately as Dr. Colvin R. de Silva famously said; “In Sri Lanka no one ever resigns. They only resign themselves to the situation.”

However in the light of emerging evidence that the entire Cabinet barring three ministers–Bandula Gunawardana, Ramesh Pathirana and Udaya Gammanpila–who voiced opposition to the decision to switch overnight to organic fertiliser makes the Cabinet too collectively complicit in the so called ‘mistake’.

According to Mr Gammanpila one minister had even gone to the extent of encouraging the President by stating that the decision would help him attain nirvana.

In such a context the slogan “Gota Go Home” has to be interpreted as a cry for the entire Cabinet to step aside in view of the poor individual and collective leadership of the Government.

In fact the call for the Government to step down is rapidly spreading with religious leaders, professionals, intellectuals and even the leading business houses in the country calling for a change.

Within the Government too there are signs of cracks emerging with the latest being the voice of Dullas Allahaperuma. In recent times it was noticeable that in his role as Government spokesmen he chose his words with extra care when difficult questions were posed to him with regard to the Government’s performance.

On Friday, in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Media Minister called for the resignation of the entire Cabinet. In his letter Mr Alahapperuma has said that the entire Cabinet, including the Prime Minister must resign and allow the Parliament to overcome the economic crisis by forming an all-party government.

“We must respect the sovereignty of the people and listen to their demands,” he said.

The question in everybody’s mind is, what next? There does not seem to be any option but for the current Government to step down and hand the reins over to an interim/caretaker Government. Such a Government must have a Cabinet in which none of the ministers who were responsible for bringing the economy to such dire straits are included.

The successor to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa can be elected by Parliament as per the Constitution.

The interim/caretaker Government’s task will be to implement a pre agreed programme of work within a given period of six months to a year. The first and high priority task of such a Government must be to ensure the supply of food, medicines, fuel, electricity and other basics which will have to be monitored on a daily basis. For this a special mechanism will have to be set up.

Simultaneously, immediately and in parallel, the 20th Amendment will have to be abolished and the 19th Amendment revived. Such a step should not pose too much of a problem as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has announced his agreement to such a proposal.

Within three months of the interim/caretaker Government taking office legislation to abolish the Executive Presidency should be passed in Parliament with a referendum to validate such a Constitutional Amendment being put on hold to be held simultaneously with the next Parliamentary elections in six months or one year as agreed.

In view of the reluctance of some political leaders to rub shoulders and co-habit with erstwhile political opponents in an interim Government, the Cabinet in such a Government could comprise suitable nominees of the respective leaderships of political parties with liberty to withdraw from such a Government at any stage with reasons stated to Parliament.

A council of economic experts should assist the Cabinet to address the short and midterm challenges that the country is facing.

The time for action is now. Delay could take the country along paths that can only make the situation worse. ([email protected])

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